|History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2008 Conference Panel)|
|Katherine L. French|
|Ruth Mazo Karras|
Ruth Mazo Karras
(University of Minesota)
The term “patriarchy” in the title of Judith Bennett’s book has occasioned some controversy, in part because she broadens it from the earlier meaning of “father-rule” to a broader sense, growing out of the feminist movement, of any male-dominated society (55). Some of the other pieces in this forum take issue with this use of the term. We badly need a term for this broader sense, and “patriarchy” is a good one; we may need a term for the narrower meaning also, but there is no hope of restricting it in common parlance to that meaning, whatever we academics may do. But the broader usage raises the question of the relation of systematic domination to individual attitudes. This is central to our understanding of the past—in my case, like Bennett’s, particularly the medieval European past. How can we imagine a culture in which some women wielded a good deal of power, some men argued for women’s virtuousness, women controlled property, and wives and husbands lived companionably and shared authority over their families, yet which was still systematically patriarchal? Quite easily, I suggest. We see such a culture around us. Contemporary society is quite different from medieval Europe, but understanding that both can be called patriarchal, in different ways, helps us understand deep and persistent structures of gender and dominance.